Commissioners spend thousands on travel expenses with no budget to reign them in

Commissioners spend thousands on travel expenses with no budget to reign them in

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - County commissioners spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars every year for travel with no budget limiting their trips.

WBTV has numerous questions still unanswered about commissioner travel expenses, including why records for an expensive trip to Pittsburgh were not originally turned over by county staff.

WBTV requested records of all travel expenses for county commissioners between Jan. 1, 2017 and July 1, 2019. In June, four county commissioners took a chartered plane to Pittsburgh for an “intercity visit.” The trip was by organized by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance and cost a total of $12,000 for the commissioners who went.

Even though all travel expense forms were signed and authorized in June, county staff did not turn over those travel records until WBTV specifically asked for them. When an investigative reporter for WBTV asked why the records were not originally produced, a county spokesperson said they would have to check with their legal department to find out why those records were not included.

Commissioner Trevor Fuller, who attended the Pittsburgh trip, has spent more on travel than any other commissioner over the past couple of years. Between Jan. 2017 and June 2019, Fuller spent $20,488 in travel expenses. Fuller also spent $11,920 between January and June 2019.

Most of the trips Fuller and other commissioners take are related to the National Association of Counties and are covered by county travel policy.

However, some of Fuller’s trips are more off the beaten path than his colleagues.

In Feb. 2019, Fuller attended the Winter Innovation Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to county records, Fuller was a speaker at the event. The trip cost taxpayers $2,164.

Fuller also attended the 2017 Washington Ideas Conference at a cost of $2,141.

WBTV emailed Fuller questions about how the Winter Innovation Summit was beneficial to county taxpayers. Fuller responded that it “would be a shame” if viewers didn’t learn what residents get from travel by commissioners.

“In my case, the modest investment in travel has paid off handsomely, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal money we have been able to bring to Mecklenburg County as a result of our national visibility and engagement with others,” Fuller wrote.

Fuller linked his travel with grants the county has received for early childhood education and the HIV/AIDS PReP initiative.

But Fuller did not identify which trips led to those grants nor did he provide any specifics on the Salt Lake City trip. Fuller did not respond to WBTV’s follow up questions on that topic.

WBTV has been working to get straight forward answers on whether commissioners have a limit to their travel expenses. County staff sent WBTV a policy signed in 2014 that indicated commissioners had a travel “allowance.”

But more recently, a spokesperson for Mecklenburg County told WBTV that the travel expenses come for the commissioners operating budget. An email from Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell said that “there is no cap on travel expenses for County Commissioners.”

County Manager Dena Diorio is charged with approving travel requests in advance and the county’s finance department reviews expense reports to check if they qualify for reimbursement.

While Fuller spent the most of any commissioner over the past few years, Chairman George Dunlap was only marginally behind Fuller. Dunlap spent $19,046 in travel expenses between Jan. 2017 and June 2019. Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell had spent the third most in travel of any commissioner at a total of $8,474.

In an email, Rodriguez-McDowell said that the trips allow her to gather some of the newest and most innovative ideas in governing.

“Bringing those ideas and innovations home to help improve the way we provide programs and services to our residents and customers is important to our community and I am proud to do that work,” Rodriguez-McDowell wrote.

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